Libya No-Fly Operation: What Comes Next?
Now that the supporters of a no-fly zone over Libya have got the legal authority they required — both international and domestic (I agree with Peter that the president does not need additional congressional authority to vote for and contribute to a UN SC action) — what comes next? Despite herculean efforts by the punditry to analogize the situation in Libya to Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan, Afghanistan, etc., the end game for this conflict seems to be more of a black hole than any in recent memory. And the swiftness of this turn of events is pretty stunning. President Obama’s State of the Union address at the end of January had no mention of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, or Libya. Just 45 days later, we have committed to an open-ended UN Chapter VII operation that authorizes “all means necessary” to protect the civilian population of Libya from its own government. Outside of the response to the attacks of the 9/11, I can’t think of any time there has been so swift an enforcement action against a member state of the UN. And, in the case of Afghanistan post-9/11, the “government in exile”, not the Taliban, continued to hold the Afghan seat at the UN. There are many observers, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who believe the international community has been too slow in this case. But relative to past Chapter VII actions, this is lightening speed.
So, what next? The history of Chapter VII operations — and other non-UN authorized interventions like Kosovo and Iraq — tells us that lots can go badly wrong for the intervening powers at this stage. Andrew Sullivan has usefully rounded up the reactions from the punditry here. I share Marc Lynch’s sense of feeling conflicted, which he discusses here at Foreign Policy. Lynch describes what it means for the no-fly to “succeed”:
The intervention is a high-stakes gamble. If it succeeds quickly, and Qaddafi’s regime crumbles as key figures jump ship in the face of its certain demise, then it could reverse the flagging fortunes of the Arab uprisings. Like the first Security Council resolution on Libya, it could send a powerful message that the use of brutal repression makes regime survival less rather than more likely. It would put real meat on the bones of the “Responsibility to Protect” and help create a new international norm. And it could align the U.S. and the international community with al-Jazeera and the aspirations of the Arab protest movement. I have heard from many protest leaders from other Arab countries that success in Libya would galvanize their efforts, and failure might crush their hopes.
The problem with even this rosiest view of success is that it doesn’t tell us what, beyond the end of Qaddafi’s regime, the end game is. What does post-Qaddafi Libya look like? (Or, to frame it as a question I heard asked last week: can you name three Libyans in public life other than Qaddafi or someone with the last name Qaddafi?) Frederic Wehry has a useful primer up at Foreign Affairs on the Libyan political landscape and the likely make-up of the post-Qaddafi ruling class, which raises lots more questions about who would be in control. And is there any historical precedent to suggest that the western powers leading the no-fly effort (with only a thin veneer of political cover from the Arab League) would not be (a) drawn directly into and/or (b) held responsible for what happens next? Who among the regional powers has the capacity to broker and, most importantly, keep some kind of post-conflict peace arrangement? Military, economic, political, and administrative capacity matters in these sort of large-scale interventions, and interventions that take place before a workable peace agreement is in place are the least likely to succeed. (Two 2005 Rand studies on UN- and US-led interventions documented the importance of settlements on the ground before stability and nation building operations can succeed.)
Even the idea that the intervention could establish a new “norm” for R2P and humanitarian intervention is on pretty shaky ground. In Libya’s neighborhood the bloody crackdown in Bahrain is being largely played down and the only intervention has been by the Saudis seeking to bolster the status quo rather than hasten a path to reform. Norms only solidify if they are broadly accepted and are seen as effective. So, if Qaddafi does go quickly? Lots of hard decisions to come about stabilization and nation building. And if he doesn’t go quickly? No norm setting, and lots of hard decisions ahead about the escalation of regional and international involvement.